I’ve reviewed so many authors, illustrators and other children’s book experts. Today I am posting the best advice offered from these experts in the past eight months of interviews . . .
Adrea Brown, Literary Agent
What are some of the most common mistakes aspiring children’s book writers make?
Too many people make the mistake of writing rhyme, thinking that it is easy. But, writing perfect rhyme is the trickiest and if you are a writer, why would you want to be forced to rhyme bat with cat and hat? If one word is off, it is an instant rejection for agents. Writers should use words well and find ways to make their words lyrical and not rhyme. Writers also make mistakes in creating worlds of fantasy without a basis in reality, while the best picture books are about the universals in a child’s life, like school, pets, siblings, first time at doctor, etc. New writers should stick to the basics.
Katherine L. House, Author of The White House for Kids
What advice would you have for a writer who is considering taking on non-fiction for kids, and particularly any tips on keeping the writing interesting for the audience?
Research, research, research. Use as many primary sources as possible, including historic photos, oral history interviews, memoirs, letters, government records and newspaper articles written at the time of a specific event you are writing about. Remember that if what you learn is not interesting to you, it probably won’t be interesting to young readers. Talk to kids and find out what they want to know about your topic. Write and re-write, cutting out extra words and choosing lively verbs and adjectives.
William Chemerka, Actor and Author of Davy Crockett From A to Z
What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about writing an historical non-fiction picture book?
Don’t write a book only for children: write a book that a child can read and enjoy along with his/her parents and grandparents. And act out every line as you write it. Every line in all of my novels for young readers was acted out as I sat at the computer. However, with the A to Z books, I created info-packed mini-paragraphs that could lend themselves to illustrations.
Stephen Mooser, Author and President of SCBWI
So what is the difference between a good children’s book and an extraordinary one?
An extraordinary book has to offer something never seen before – a totally unique character or angle; it must give readers an experience they are not expecting. Unfortunately, truly original ideas like that don’t come along all that often. One excellent example that comes to mind is the book Millicent Min by Lisa Yee. Min is an eleven-year-old old super genius who goes to high school. She’s an obnoxious know-it-all with no friends. Author Lisa Yee brilliantly takes this character and totally turns upside down what you’d expect a stereotypical genius girl to be. Another example is a picture book by author Mo Willems called We Are in a Book (An Elephant and Piggy Book). He magically makes the book itself become a character to really hook the reader. It was a completely original idea that had never been executed before.
R Kent Rasmussen, Author of WWI for Kids
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to write a comprehensive non-fiction book for kids on a history subject like you have?
Begin by reading as extensively as possible on your subject. Before you sit down to write, you should know the basic outlines of your subject well enough to write most of your book off the top of your head. I began my research on World War I by reading general histories of the war; one I read four times. It’s also good to read works by different authors to get different perspectives and different opinions.
You should pay particular note of controversies about your subject and not assume that any one authority’s views are necessary correct. Checking facts and supplementing your reading as you write is both fine and necessary, but it’s not possible to write intelligently on a subject if you are trying to master its basic outlines as you write. You should aim to master your subject thoroughly enough to be able to express your own views on it. Many, perhaps most, of the views World War I for Kids expresses on interconnections among wartime developments are my own. This is not to say they are necessarily original—they probably are not—but that I became a sufficient conversant with the subject matter to formulate ideas of my own. Of course, it helps to be able to find support for those ideas in the work of other historians.
Susan VanHecke, Author of Under the Freedom Tree
Do you have any advice for writers who wish to embark upon writing a children’s book based upon an historical event?
Research, research, research! Soon you’ll start to see a storyline emerge, and if you’re lucky, maybe even some patterns around which you could structure your tale. In my case, it was this fabulous tree—all these historic events with far-reaching reverberations occurred either near or under Emancipation Oak. And don’t be afraid to experiment, to get emotional, to try a new technique like “rememory.” You might be surprised by the possibilities that open up.
Rosy Lamb, Author and Illustrator of Paul Meets Bernadette
What inspired you to write a children’s book, and what was the process like finding a publisher?
I love picture books very much. William Steig (my all-time favorite), Virginia Lee Burton, Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak,Wanda Gag and Margaret Wise Brown are right up there in my personal pantheon of the very greatest artists and writers. Children’s books also play a central role in the artistic culture of the family I grew up in.
I wrote Paul Meets Bernadette almost ten years ago. I knew making a proper dummy to show to publishers would take some time and somehow I never felt I could take several months off to devote to the project. But then two things happened. My husband, who loved the little story, encouraged me to take the summer of 2010 to make a dummy. Meanwhile my father, Albert Lamb*, who in recent years had begun to write and publish picture books with the illustrator, David McPhail, made an appointment for me in September with his favorite editor and publisher at Candlewick, Sarah Ketchersid.
Long story short, I worked hard all that summer on the dummy only to miss the meeting that I had been so looking forward to. I realized on the day of the appointment that my plane back to Paris from Philly was scheduled for a day earlier than I had thought! What a disaster! My father met me just as I was hopping on the bus to Philly (I was in NY for the appointment) and I gave him the dummy to bring to Sarah that afternoon. Many, many months went by and I heard nothing. I thought Sarah must have lost the dummy. It was my only copy, so I finally emailed her to ask if she could find it and return it to me. A few weeks after that she told me that in fact they wanted to publish it! It was the most wonderful and unexpected surprise.
Tony Johnston, Author of The Cat with Seven Names
Do you have any advice for anyone out there who might want to get started writing children’s picture books?
- Don’t quit when somebody rejects your work; keep trying.
- Know that all people who accomplish great things take risks.
- Believe in yourself
- Be realistic. Educate yourself about the process.
- If your story is good, know that somewhere out there, there’s a person who will read it, love it and publish it.
Pamela S. Turner, Author of The Dolphins of Shark Bay
What advice do you have for a writer who wants to get into writing non-fiction field books for children?
Read, read, read the sorts of books you think you might want to write. Follow blogs that review nonfiction books for kids. Start out by writing magazine articles — it’s a great way to learn the trade, and often the subjects of magazine articles springboard into books. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators to meet other writers, and join a critique group of people also interested in writing non-fiction.
David M. Schwartz, Author of Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices
Is there a process you go through to come up with the ideas for your books, or do you just wait for inspiration?
Usually the best ideas just pop into my mind and then percolate for a while before I come up with a way to turn the idea into a book. Often the “ah-hah!” moment occurs while I’m doing something else entirely: riding my bike or hiking or cooking dinner. You might know the quote from Louis Pasteur that goes, “In matters of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.” It’s something like that with ideas for books.
Without even thinking about it but by being prepared with background information as well as being open to new ideas, I subconsciously filter the myriad thoughts that come into my mind to extract the ones that I think will make the best books. It’s a very personal process and when people say to me they have a great idea for a book I could write, I usually think to myself, “It may be a great idea for a book you can write but that doesn’t mean it will be a great idea for me to write!” I don’t often say this out loud, but it is what I think, and it’s not meant to be unkind in any way. I really do believe that the person who came up with the idea is the one whose mind is best prepared to write that book!
Ronald A. Reis, Author of Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids: With 21 Activities
During your writing process, do you ever struggle with coming up with the right way to communicate your thoughts that would be appropriate for middle readers?
With any subject I take on, be it a biography or a book of general interest, there will always be far more information available than I can possibly use. My first job, then, is to determine what I will not require, what not to say. With a book for kids or young adults, this becomes even more important. How to get to the essence of what needs to be said? When you are writing for this age group, you often wonder if the vocabulary you are using and the sentence length will be appropriate. With regard to the former, I use the American Heritage Student Thesaurus, which tends to keep the vocabulary under check. With sentence structure, you want to avoid the long, compound versions. It is the same with long paragraphs. I usually wind up breaking these up.
David Wiesner, 3-Time Caldecott Winner, Illustrator and Author of Mr. Wuffles
Do you have advice for others who want to break into illustrating picture books?
Wow. There’s no short answer to that. I guess mainly to not create work that you think publishers will want to see, but to create art that is personal to you. That will be something no one else can offer and will distinguish your work from everything else.
Aaron Becker, Author and Illustrator and Caldecott Honor Winner of Journey
Can you enlighten our readers about what it is like to work with watercolors when illustrating a children’s book? What are the benefits and challenges of using this medium?
Watercolor is a tricky medium and not for the faint of heart. I knew it was what I wanted to use for the book; it provided the right ethereal counterpart to the tight line work I wanted to do. There’s something soft and dreamy about it. That said, I had to actually teach myself how to use watercolors, as I’d never attempted it before. But a lot of the painting skills from oil, acrylic, and working digitally all are interchangeable; it ends up being about learning how to control the moisture, how to use brushes and inks – things that just take practice. It was a steep learning curve to say the least. Before I started work on the final illustrations, I spent three months just painting every day with the sole purpose of learning the medium.
Wade Dillon, Illustrator of Davy Crockett From A to
Do you have any advice for artists who want to break into illustrating books for children?
Network. Safely put your artwork out there and get to know your fellow illustrators. Submit your portfolio to publishing houses and remain prudent, but courteous. Most importantly, be yourself. Be the artist that you want to be.
Chad Wallace, Author and Illustrator of The Mouse and the Meadow
Do you have any advice for an artist who wants to venture out into digital illustrating for the first time and even providing illustrations for an interactive app?
I would say the key to good digital art is a strong foundation in traditional art. You have to get a feel for using real mediums before attempting to recreate that on the computer. And it’s difficult to resist using all the features digital offers just because it’s there. You could wind up having a really disjointed looking illustration.
It’s clear that apps will continue to play a major role in the future. I believe Illustration courses will begin to include animation and app design into their curriculum.
Kate Samworth, Author and Illustrator of Aviary Wonders, Inc
Do you have any advice for an artist who wants to break into the children’s book market?
I’m very new at this, but I do love to give advice. I would advise them to be tenacious; not to take rejection personally; to be open to constructive criticism; prepared to revise. Finding the right editor is crucial. You’ve got to be patient to find the people who appreciate your vision and allow you to maintain your integrity.
Kris Di Giacomo, Illustrator of The Day I Lost My Superpowers
What advice do you have for an artist who wants to really stand out – like you do – in the great big world of children’s book illustrating?
Hmmm… Explore, play, enjoy! Look around at what others are doing. There is influence and inspiration all around us. Challenge yourself and keep trying new things, for the fun of it! And find someone whose feedback helps you go further with your work.
London Ladd, Illustrator of Under the Freedom Tree
Do you have any advice for others who want to illustrate children’s books?
Keep working on your craft, sketching, drawing and painting. The more samples you have the better. An editor may see one little part of a drawing you did and decide that you are the right person for the job. It could be that little duck you decided to paint in a corner of your illustration at the last minute that makes you stand out. You just never know!
Always be learning. Take your work to be evaluated by someone whose opinion you value, and look into your heart. It’s going to be difficult, but it will happen if you keep pressing forward. When I visit schools I tell children that success comes from passion, patience and perseverance. If you don’t have enough passion for it, you’re not going to have the patience for the perseverance. Push yourself forward and prosper.
Christine Davenier, Illustrator of The Cat with Seven Names
What advice do you have for anyone out there who wants to publish children’s books?
Follow your own path and trust your inspiration. Never hesitate to push open any door. Look around at everything, be curious and confident. Look at a lot of paintings and children’s books; this is going to be a long and fantastic journey !